Despite a national ban in Singapore, Yale-NUS is pressing ahead with its plans to show a film that has been deemed by the Singaporean government as a threat to the country’s security.

The film, “To Singapore, with Love” documents the lives of nine Singaporean exiles — among them trade unionists, communists and student leaders — and was slated to be shown at the National University of Singapore Museum at the end of the month. But earlier this month, Singapore’s Media Development Authority classified the film as NAR, or “Not allowed for all ratings,” claiming that it unfairly suggested that exiles are being denied their right to return to the country.

The categorization prevents the film from being shown or distributed in the city-state of 5.4 million.

“By doing this, MDA is taking away an opportunity for us Singaporeans see it and to have a conversation about it and our past that this film could have started or contributed to,” Tan Pin Pin, the filmmaker, said in a statement. “Now, the irony [is] that a film about Singapore exiles is now exiled from Singapore as well.”

The banning of the film quickly raised ire amongst Yale professors, including longtime Yale-NUS critics including English professor Jill Campbell and political science lecturer Jim Sleeper, who characterized the ban as a threat to freedom of expression at a college stamped with Yale’s name.

But despite the MDA ban, Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said the film will be shown in a course on documentary film later this semester on his campus. Lewis said that Yale-NUS checked with MDA about the screening of the film and received the response that the MDA “had no problems with our plans.”

Lewis said governmental restrictions in Singapore generally do not affect educational material. There are exceptions under national law, he said, that allow materials which would otherwise be restricted to be used on-campus for educational purposes.

“Academic freedom and open inquiry are bedrock principles of Yale-NUS College. Our faculty teach freely on a wide range of subjects, and we have not faced any restrictions on our curriculum,” he said.

The ban, as well as Lewis’ reassurance about the film’s screening at Yale-NUS, comes on the heels of Yale President Peter Salovey’s full-throated defense of free expression during his freshman address in August.

Salovey said he was pleased to learn that the film will be screened in a Yale-NUS film course, adding that he expects the Yale-NUS campus to be a place in which “the principle of free expression of ideas is respected.”

Yet the decision to show the film at Yale-NUS is only a small reassurance to critics of the school who have publicly voiced opposition to free speech restrictions in Singapore for several years. Since the creation of Yale-NUS was announced in 2009, Yale administrators have faced a constant stream of concerns about Singapore’s tight policies on individual freedom. The freedom of faculty and students to engage in controversial issues and a true liberal arts education has also been a topic of debate.

“I would say [showing the film] is a step in the right direction,” said Hank Reichman, the chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. But he added that the move is far from enough to address all the questions that the AAUP raised in 2012, when it released an open letter expressing concern about freedom of speech at Yale-NUS.

The extent of Yale-NUS’s commitment to free speech is still uncertain, Sleeper said, given that it is unclear what kind of understanding the college has reached with the Singaporean government.

Six Yale-NUS students interviewed said they do not feel impacted by government-sponsored censorship in the materials they study or the conversations they have. Yale-NUS student Zachary Mahon said students read Salman Rushdie’s novel “Shame” in their Common Curriculum literature course, and have “The Satanic Verses” – which was written by the same author and banned in many countries including Singapore – available to them in their library.

Nicholas Carverhill said that earlier this summer the National Library Board decided to ban three children’s books because they depicted “alternative” family structures and values. As a response, Carverhill said he purchased the books in Canada and brought them over to Singapore to donate to Yale-NUS, which included them in its library.

Mahon said he perceives Yale-NUS as a “safe haven” for controversial materials within the state — but added that he also generally feels like he is able to do what he pleases in Singapore.

“I do not feel there is anything we cannot talk about. We criticize the government all the time, both inside and outside of the classroom,” he said. “This is only natural as it is necessary to acknowledge the flaws of anything in order to progress.”

Tamara Burgos said entertainment or documentary films that may broaden students’ perspectives and be helpful educational resources for them should be available to all.

Yale administrators have long expressed hopes that Yale-NUS’s presence in Singapore will encourage the expansion of free expression in the city-state of six million — a hope that Salovey continued to express despite the ban.

“Time will tell whether an emphasis on free expression as we’ve come to enjoy it in American society is experienced similarly in greater Singaporean society,” Salovey said. “My personal view is that the existence of a campus like Yale-NUS College creates some momentum in that direction.”

Before the ban, “To Singapore, with Love” was slated to be shown along with two of Tan’s earlier films at the NUS Museum.

Correction: Sept. 18

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that students read Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” as part of their Common Curriculum. In fact, students read “Shame” by the same author, and had “The Satanic Verses” available to them in the Yale-NUS library.


  • jim sleeper

    It’s good to see President Salovey and President Lewis taking a substantive stand for freedom of expression here, but keep the larger context in mind: In 2012, two Singapore opposition-party leaders were able to travel to Yale and speak at a public meeting co-sponsored by the undergraduate Yale International Relations Association and the faculty’s Southeast Asian Studies Council even though one of the leaders, Chee Soon Juan, had recently been railroaded into a conviction for “defaming” ruling party officials and had been barred from leaving the country even to accept a human rights award in Oslo. Apparently Singapore decided that it would look too bad to block Chee from speaking on the campus of its new partner, Yale. Suddenly, he was allowed to come.

    So let’s be skeptical about Singapore’s honoring Yale-NUS’ freedom to show the otherwise-still-banned film to students I a particular course. How would the government react if Yale-NUS showed the film more openly on campus? The government is notorious for using law meticulously but selectively to block what it seeks to block while permitting what it decides it would be tactically wise to permit. Letting Yale-NUS show a banned film in one classroom seems to me to fall into the same category as letting Chee come to New Haven to criticize the regime,

    Here are two columns I wrote about this at the time. Let’s see what happens with “To Singapore With Love” beyond its one-time showing.

    • theantiyale

      Infiltrate and subvert. Status seekers will prevail. No one with a brain in their head is going to ask Yale to leave Singapore.

    • Matthew Ware

      The defamation charge against Chee is actually much older, dating from long before the 2011 general election, which he wasn’t allowed to contest, and through to the 2012 conference in Oslo, until a settlement agreement the same year required him to pay $30,000 in revenues from sales of the book “Democratically Speaking” for the charges to be dropped. The exclusion from politics and travel ban are a consequence of the heavy restrictions Singapore law places on people in bankruptcy, and that’s why defamation suits can be wielded rather conveniently as a political tool – the amount of the damages are simply set greater than the charged person could pay. These suits are a lame excuse for denying political rights, but they don’t have a whole lot to do with Yale-NUS.

      As for how the government would react if we showed the film more openly on campus? I don’t know the answer, but as a student in the Class of 2018, I’m going to work to make sure we do have a showing open to all students. “To Singapore With Love”, and all the other banned or challenged artistic and literary works my friends and fellow students mentioned in the article above, will get more than a ‘one-time showing’ at Yale-NUS.

      • Matthew Ware

        Update: as noted in her comment above, Tan Pin Pin hasn’t agreed to showings in Singapore at this point. It’s out of our hands for now. I respect her move to seek reclassification of the film, as many more Singaporeans could see it if she were successful.

      • jim sleeper

        Right, Chee’s long experience with persecution by the Singapore government was sketched in the column I wrote at the time, the first one that’s linked in my comment above.

  • disqus_f3Gqo4uR2r

    The fact that Pericles Lewis had to ask permission from the censorship board (the MDA) before he could schedule this limited, restricted screening of the film, shows that freedom of expression at Yale-NUS is an illusion (one that will be dearly held by those inside its bubble). Limited “freedom” that you have to ask for–from those whose very job it is to restrict it–is not really freedom.

  • Pin Pin

    I am Pin Pin the director of To Singapore, with Love – I have NOT agreed to any screenings in Singapore. All screenings of this film to date are outside Singapore.

  • Henry Tan

    Well done!!

  • puffthejapanesedragon

    The very fact that free speech at NUS is newsworthy speaks to the grave mistake made in opening Yale-NUS.

    When a university like Yale opens a second campus in a faraway nation, the university should choose a society where freedom of expression is an expectation, not a pleasant surprise that makes the newspaper.

    What a shameful, shameful choice it was to open a liberal arts university in a still-repressive country with outmoded social norms.

    • Matthew Ware

      Although your concerns are in the right place, the reality is much, much less simplistic than that. Yale-NUS was founded by Yale and NUS, but it’s not part of Yale. Currently it’s connected to NUS with a high degree of autonomy, which is why certain protections exist here that may not exist elsewhere in Singapore (but should). It surprises you that there might be a society where nascent political freedoms are noteworthy, but many societies have reached that point in their history, and there’s good reason to believe Singapore is close to that point now. Singapore is a society with people from all walks of life, and it’s a mistake to assume that the people are defined by their government, or “outmoded social norms”.

  • Protests Rus

    Another trailer of Tan Pin Pin’s movie To Singapore with Love has been released. This clip features in poetry the angst and longing for Singapore. Watch the trailer and share!

  • Tan Tiah Yang Jason

    It is disallowed to show it in public, but it is okay to show it during a course. So can Yale-NUS offer a one-day course for the public so that more Singaporean can watch the show? Can Yale-NUS work with the director, Tan Pin Pin?